Magazine article Free Inquiry

'Religious Humanism' and the Dangers of Semantic Distortion

Magazine article Free Inquiry

'Religious Humanism' and the Dangers of Semantic Distortion

Article excerpt

As articles in the Summer 2002 FREE INQUIRY demonstrated, many humanists best described as naturalistic--humanists whose worldview rejects the transcendent or supernatural--continue to call themselves "religious humanists." (1) To explore this issue, I re-visited the essay "What Is Humanism?" by Frederick Edwords. Edwords, former executive director of the American Humanist Association and current editor of its magazine, The Humanist, has presented this treatment of humanism to various groups since 1989. (2) His essay offers a unique opportunity to reconsider the historical emergence of contemporary naturalistic humanism, along with some problems that attend its linguistic legacy to the present day. (3)

In "What Is Humanism?" Edwords delineates a broad array of what we might call "hyphenated humanisms" that have arisen since the Renaissance (e.g., classical, modern, secular, etc.). When he gets to "religious humanism," Edwords touches on a problem as old as contemporary humanism itself. In the process, he unwittingly points up some of the unfortunate repercussions that come of stretching pivotal terms like religion and religious well beyond their standard meanings.

I will suggest here that religious humanism when applied to naturalistic humanists, is an unfortunate and misleading usage. It represents an unsatisfactory "resolution" that was adopted at a historical Inflection point in the emergence of contemporary naturalistic humanism. And it represents a semantic distortion whose repercussions extend far beyond the "merely semantic." In this article I will suggest alternative language that I hope will meet the needs and desires of naturalistic humanists without requiring that they continue to use inevitably misleading terminology.

At the outset, I should stress that I am not suggesting that every use of the term religious humanism is improper. It is legitimately used by (true) religionists with a humanist bent. If one defines humanism broadly enough--say, as a preoccupation with what it is to be human, an overriding concern with humanity or a pan-human ethical or moral commitment--then some Catholics, Hindus, and Mormons, among others, can properly call themselves religious humanists. Similarly Unitarian Universalists who subscribe to their own broadly humanist principles, but believe that a transcendent force operates in the universe, are religious humanists. [See James Haught's article in this issue for more on religion and agnosticism within Unitarian Universalism.--EDS.] Pantheists with true dedication to the welfare of all humanity may properly be designated religious humanists. Even teleologists committed to humanist principles, but who believe that an invisible hand guides human destiny to a transcendent omega point, qualify.

My concern lies squarely with use of the term religious humanism by naturalistic humanists, which poses serious problems with respect to the notions of both religion and humanism.


Frederick Edwords is, of course, by no means the only naturalistic humanist to use or defend the term religious humanism. It has been in use at least since the early part of the twentieth century most notably In Humanist Manifesto I (1933). But his essay furnishes a unique opportunity to analyze the term, its internal contradictions, and the confusion it produces within the context of contemporary naturalistic humanism.

Edwords demonstrates that for quite some time humanism has been hot verbal real estate. Many people with many agendas have wanted a piece of this upbeat-sounding word. As Corliss Lamont noted, "Humanism is such an old and attractive word and so weighted with favorable meanings that it has been currently adopted by various groups and persons whose use of it is most questionable." (4) This is obvious from the eight hyphenated humanisms which Edwards lists: Renaissance, Literary Cultural, Philosophical, Christian, Modern, Secular, and Religious. …

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